Lockhart's iPad-in-every-backpack plan lacked vision

Published: Wednesday, March 12 2014 3:05 p.m. MDT

House Speaker Becky Lockhart speaks in the House of Representatives at the Utah Capitol on Jan. 27, 2014.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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As political slogans go, “A chicken in every pot” was more effective than “An iPad in every backpack.”

For a while, that is.

When Herbert Hoover used that slogan, it helped vault him to the White House in 1928. But when the Great Depression hit, it didn’t prove any more popular than Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart’s recent iPad plan, which proved as elusive as the top level of Angry Birds.

Lockhart’s problem was that virtually everyone, including the public school establishment, seemed to find her $200 million tablet-for-everyone proposal a complete surprise.

In democracies (democratic republics, to be more precise), politicians rarely change the world through surprise legislation. It takes persuasive lobbying among key decisionmakers and a detailed explanation of goals.

Or, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “A genuine leader doesn't reflect consensus, he molds consensus.”

Lockhart’s plan evaporated this week before it could set in the mold. The Senate refused to fund much more than $20 million, and the governor threatened a veto of anything more. She was accused of using the proposal to position herself for a run at the governor’s office.

But while it’s easy to gang up on the speaker, it’s a bit harder to take a clear-eyed look at public education and what it will need in order to rise above a middling success record in a nation whose students increasingly lag behind much of the world.

It’s also worth asking why public education seems to be the only endeavor these days that hasn’t been radically changed by technology.

Utah politicians and administrators have set a much-publicized goal of having two-thirds of all adults in the state in possession of a college degree or certificate by 2020. The current level is only 43 percent.

No one seems willing to discuss how that sort of accomplishment will take a rethinking of how children are taught and how schools are organized.

In other words, no one is proposing the sort of radical thinking that will be needed to get public schools out of a 19th century Industrial Age model in which kids are rewarded for spending a certain amount of time in a classroom and everyone is moved through the system with others their age in a type of assembly line conveyor belt of learning.

We won’t do this by just arguing, once again, over how much to spend for what schools already do.

To be clear, school-age children in America already spend an average of 7½ hours a day in front of one sort of screen or another, and that sedentary experience has been blamed as a major factor in childhood obesity. Merely throwing another screen their way, with all its distractions and social media do-dads, won’t educate them any more than another episode of "The Simpsons." Nor will it help them engage with the world around them as they slip farther into the insular realms of cyberspace.

But that doesn’t mean iPads can’t be a part of an effective overall strategy. Plenty of private companies exist out there, willing to show how, for a price.

Late last year, the New York Times profiled one of them in use in North Carolina, complete with tablet computers for every teacher and student.

But you don’t have to travel to North Carolina. Northwest Middle School in Salt Lake City has used a $2.3 million state grant and a $1 million federal technology grant to lift itself from a poor-performing school to one successful enough to attract a visit from the Secretary of Education. Part of the money went to purchase hundreds of notebook computers and smartboards.

Used intelligently, technology can help teachers provide targeted individual attention to students and measure their progress. But it can’t work without a lot of teacher training and a change in the culture of public education.

That takes a different set of priorities, as in funding priorities.

And, of course, the fact several companies are anxious to help ought to raise suspicions. This is the sort of thing that requires serious thought and discussion.

Based on her comments in various interviews, Lockhart seems to understand much of this. Too bad she didn’t build a consensus and articulate a vision that might have led somewhere.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.

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